In a September 2016 article in the Guardian, technology editor Alex Hearn reflected that back in 2012, Forbes magazine had posed the question: Is data the new oil? Four years on, in 2016, Fortune brushed away any doubts about the answer and declared, Data is the new oil.
The rapid expansion of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in all domains of our lives (home assistants, public health, education, banking, human resource recruitment, creative writing, shopping, advertising…the list is long) requires more and more data to operate. The more rapid the expansion of AI, the more exponential the demand for data for AI systems to operate, and the more data become valuable.
This is the reality we live in. This is also the reality of governance systems and policy making in the 21st Century. Data and new digital technologies can change (and are changing) the way governments design and implement public policies, and what (in the near future) may be seen as legitimate and credible knowledge for evidence-informed decisions.
To discuss the role knowledge plays in governance systems and the changes that new digital technologies are bringing, I talked with Matthias Herr. Matthias is the Regional Director of Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation in Eastern and South Eastern Europe.
Matthias, thank you for making the time to share your ideas on the blog. Let’s start with Helvetas. Can you tell me briefly about the types of projects and programmes that Helvetas is implementing in the Balkans and Eastern Europe? What are their goals?
Helvetas has been working in the Balkans and Eastern Europe since the early 1990s. This means that as an organisation we have been part of the transformative processes that took place as a result of the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia. Our strategic focus in the region has been firstly on economic and labour market development – including vocational education, and secondly on governance, which includes decentralisation reforms, strengthening of democratic institutions and the rule of law, and improvements in public services. We engage in these areas with our partners to create enabling conditions so that all citizens can have equal access to economic opportunities, and that their political rights and freedoms of speech are guaranteed by democratic state institutions. Our aim is to contribute to changing the eco-systems rather than providing support to individual actors or organisations. Our assumption is that if we manage to influence the systems in which our partners operate, we are likely to achieve more inclusive, sustainable and large-scale impact. Sounds abstract and complicated, but let’s be honest, development is quite a complex matter!
Several of your programmes involve collaborating with national partners to reform elements of the governance and policy decision-making systems. This can involve changes in the way knowledge is used by government organisations to inform policy decisions that can help address social and economic problems in a society.
Citizens, through their experience and knowledge, can help inform policies. Researchers in universities produce knowledge. Government agencies have units and teams that produce data and analysis about social and economic trends. Knowledge is everywhere, but we cannot assume that it is used to inform policies aimed at addressing social and economic problems. The extent to which knowledge is made accessible and utilised to inform policy decisions defines the ability of societies to shape their future. In other words, what defines modern societies is, in my opinion, the fact that they are knowledge-intensive and have, over time, developed sophisticated relationships between knowledge bearers (for example, experts, researchers, entrepreneurs, civil society, citizens, etc.) to enable innovation and adaptation or, generally speaking, wealth creation. In the part of Europe where I work, knowledge tends to be more tacit and the flows of knowledge and information are mostly informal and confined to elite groups. Nepotism and clientelist forms of engagement in the economy and the political arena limit and undermine the use of knowledge for wealth creation in these contexts.
So, can sophisticated knowledge relationships also promote participation and inclusion in the policy process?
The more people in a society are able to access and participate in the purposeful generation, combination and dissemination of knowledge, the more a society is able to create wealth in a socially inclusive manner, and the more resilient the economy and political systems become to respond to changing circumstances. For example, new technologies such as AI, machine learning, automation, genetics, etc., require governments to adapt their education and labour systems to this new future. The more the policies that guide this adaptation are informed by research, analysis, expert advice and consultations with the public, the more they will reflect a broader consensus about the way forward. On the other hand, concentration of knowledge in the hands of a few, or the ability of only a few to bring their knowledge into critical political decision-making processes, leads to social injustice and unequal access to opportunities and rights.
How would you describe a knowledge system aimed at supporting policy decisions?
I see knowledge-to-policy systems (K2P) as consisting of a network of individual knowledge bearers, such as organisations or influential individuals who function as the nodal points in the system and who utilise knowledge for the purpose of influencing political decisions. Any country or sector has networks with several such nodal points with complementary as well as conflicting interests. Some of them channel knowledge through institutional decision-making processes, while others advocate for their specific interests from outside of political institutions. In doing so, they utilise both formal and informal channels to influence political decisions. The more of these nodal points there are, the more the policy process becomes inclusive and able to address today’s problems, and the responses to global trends and challenges.
How does this translate into the reality and context of the programmes you are involved with in the Western Balkans?
A key concern in the Western Balkan region relates to the fact that policy decision-making processes are captured by a small elite, leading to nepotism and corruption, ineffective policies and reforms, and a clientelist approach with tendencies towards a populist and nationalist agenda. The K2P systems consist of a limited number of nodal points and need to grow to become more inclusive and open to the use of different forms of knowledge, such as, for example, research-based evidence. The poor performance of national K2P systems in the region is probably one of the root causes of political instability and fragility in the region and therefore requires more attention in development cooperation.
Over the years I have been involved in many governance programmes with specific policy reform objectives, but only a few of these had an explicit, specific focus on knowledge systems for informing public policy. Is this also your experience? If so, why do you think that is?
Very few development partners have identified K2P as an important focal area – most donor-funded programmes address symptoms of under-performance but not their systemic causes. It is therefore crucial to identify strategies that lead to an overall knowledge intensification of the public discourse and political decision-making process by enabling wider access to knowledge bearers and strengthening those nodal points in a vast network that aggregate and communicate such knowledge. The key to doing this is to understand that K2P systems are pluralistic in terms of different opinions, ‘alternative facts’, and interests, all of which need to be given equal opportunity in accessing the political discourse.
Matthias, thank you very much
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